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Billowing clouds of tear gas…

It hardly came as a surprise. After some not very fruitful attempts at on-site mediation, the National Guard went after the Fuerza Solidaria protest pretty heavy handedly. At about 5:30 the tear gas started, and I have to say that I’ve never seen that much tear gas used against such an innocuous demonstration. The Guardsmen, who already outnumbered the demonstrators by at least 2 to 1, fired canister after canister into the little crowd. There were some reports of rubber bullets being used as well. It seemed like an absurd overreaction: the demonstrators had been peaceful throughout. A couple of women just passed out under the thick cloud of gas. The guard prevented municipal ambulances from reaching the scene, which again seemed entirely out of hand. On the other hand, in the first world they might have gone in with batons swinging and arrested half the crowd. At least they stopped short of that.

Why?, is the obvious question. The crowd had its municipal permits in order, was unarmed, didn’t threaten anyone. Some people think this was basically a show of force, the government putting other potential demonstrators on notice that the velvet gloves have come off. But the gorila-tactics seem more likely to embolden the opposition, who see it as another sign that the more-or-less benign phase of chavismo is ending and that an out-and-out police state is being instituted in stages. One way or another, it’s a bad sign that the government is now declaring certain parts of Caracas no-go areas for opposition demonstrators. The rationale, that they were too close to the air-force base’s newly declared “security zone” seems pretty weak. In any event, the government has no clear legal basis for declaring security zones in the first place, and a very clear and explicit constitutional obligation to let people demonstrate where and when they want, so long as they do so peacefully and with the proper permits.

Overall, yesterday’s little to do outside La Carlota should’ve been page 17 news. Instead, the little media-circus that ensued generated huge front page headlines, and disturbing pictures of people getting hammered by the guard. How this helps the government’s case is beyond me.

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Known to friend and foe alike as Quico, Francisco Toro is Executive Editor at Caracas Chronicles.

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